Category Archives: cooking

Review: Cooking Technology

Review of:

Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz (ed.) Cooking  Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America (London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2016).

Michael McDonald
Florida Gulf Coast University

The contributors to, Cooking Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, view the kitchen, as a vital and dynamic locus of cultural production where, “the meanings of food, techniques, and technologies, as well as associated aesthetic values are endlessly negotiated” (p2).  The volume responds to a common misperception of the kitchen as a “place where tradition sits   uncontested” (p1) and general scholarly neglect of cooking activities and spaces.  Casting a wide geographic and cultural net, the authors present twelve cases of cooking activities and things that provide a window onto such dimensions of social life as power, identity, status, and change in social and cultural practices.  In the introduction, Professor Ayora-Diaz very cogently overviews the kitchen as a locus and technology as topic for anthropological inquiry. The physical cook space may change with the arrival of new appliances, ingredients and information. Methods and techniques of food preparation may likewise be transformed or globalized through diffusion and appropriation. Paradoxically the same forces may lead to a retrenchment or revitalization of traditional tastes, preferences and techniques. Three sections connect the book with related foci on refiguring the past, rethinking the present, transnational and trans-local meanings, and recreating tradition and newness.

Lilia Fernandez-Sousa opens the work by linking the past to present cultures through an examination of maize grinding and cooking technology in Yucatan, Mexico. Once central to Maya foodways, the metates y manos (grinding stones) and molcajates (mortar and  ), k’oben (three stone hearths) and pib (earth oven) are retained as part of the contemporary kitchen inventory alongside metal mills, plastic mortars, gas stoves and other mod-cons. The ancient Maya technology remains especially important for use in ritual foods, and for related household ceremonies but also for reasons including cost and efficiency of operation, nostalgia or sensory preferences. Julian López Garcia & Lorenzo Mariono Juárez present a similar essay   but focused on the Ch’orti’ Maya use of stone metates and clay comals (griddles) in Eastern Guatemala. Development plans to replace this technology with metal mills, solar stoves and iron comales has been met with resistance for a host of reasons including taste preference and the ritually expressed  and aesthetic relationships people share with  their food and foodways.

In the third essay, “From Bitter Root to Flat Bread” we are given a brief overview of cassava (Manihot esculenta) by Hortensia Caballero-Arias. She follows with an explanation of the differences between sweet and bitter varieties. We are provided with a deft ethnographic view of the manual processing technology and techniques employed by the Indigenous peoples of the Venezuelan Amazon to detoxify the bitter cassava and prepare it for consumption in various forms. In the final chapter in this section Claudia Rocío Magana Gonzalez, describes the complementary role of the household kitchen and the ephemeral communal kitchens in Oaxaca Mexico and how the two settings serve to conserve culinary traditions and simultaneously adapt novel technologies into the preparation of food and foster its diffusion onto a wider regional foodscape through fiestas and rituals.

The Second Section contains five chapters which draw emphasis to the global-local and trans-local connections that are expressed in foodways and follow the movements of people and foods to and from their hearths. Chapter 5, offered by Margarita Calleja Pinedo, describes how carne con chili traverses a path from Mexican street food through assimilation into a generic Tex-Mex regional cuisine, and later codified into English language cookbooks and industrialized for wider orbits of consumption as chili con carne throughout North America. In Chapter 6 Steffan Igor Ayora-Diaz presents technology which includes the tools, appliances, cookbooks, techniques and ingredients that along with in-migration and return migration effect a fluid and varied attachment to a global-local foodscape for contemporary Yucatecanos.

Mole Negro, a signature dish from the Oaxaca region of Mexico, is given a distinctive flavor by the inclusion of ingredients, namely the chilihuacle and passilla peppers grown in the region. In Chapter 7, Ramona Pérez discusses the powerful  terroir of Oaxacan foods as it affects expatriates and their mechanisms for maintaining or approximating the authenticity of their food culture when away from home. In the following essay, Jane Fajans reviews changes in the way Brazilians prepare and consume food in their homes noting that new and sophisticated culinary knowledge and practice and material inventory is emerging as a marker of social status. Fueled in part by media- especially celebrity chefs- and mobility, the once marked regional variation in the manner of cooking, choice of ingredients and the cookware employed to prepare the iconic dish of rice and beans is shown to diminish in a more cosmopolitan Brazil marked by internal migration, and a growing interest in gastronomic tourism. Chapter 9 connects the kitchen space of Cuban households to global geopolitical change over recent historic time. Anna Cristina Pertierra describes the different strategies employed for equipping kitchens, from preserving the very ancient pre-revolution appliances, to the Soviet- era distribution schemes and the more recent program of distribution connected to the 2006 Energy Revolution, and the ongoing remittance gift economy and black market.   Recorded in these material artifacts are legacies of former and current political eras and the social position of their owners.

In the final section of the collection, three authors consider the transformative power of tourism, nostalgia and haute cuisine as catalysts for valorizing and rehabilitating ethnic and traditional cuisine. Raúl Matta focuses on the catalyzing power of celebrity chefs in Peru who employ avant-garde techniques like sous-vide and purées to transform ‘indigenous foods’ like cuy (guinea pig) and arrachacha (tuber) into fine dining experiences, and the normalization of these foods into non-indigenous Peruvian diets. In the penultimate chapter, Juliana Duque-Mahecha reports on the recent dynamism in the foodscape of Colombia including a recent national policy that elevates cuisine to the category of intangible cultural heritage. In her examination of a growing culinary network she evaluates traditional Columbian cuisine as presented in three strata of public dining: fine restaurants, comfort restaurants and marketplace food stalls and in them she finds different expressions of authenticity and different strategies for interpreting   valorizing traditional Colombian foods. The final and most interesting chapter for me brings the tourist gaze to an Afro-Caribbean community on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica. Here, like many other places in Latin America, traditional foodways have been supplanted with more convenient  commercially processed foods and regional identities are being subsumed into generalized otherness. Monica Nikolić argues that traditional cooking techniques and recipes are a form of embodied cultural capital that has become a performance art for tourist consumption. Preparing traditional foods in traditional ways provides a source of income for local interpreters and a means to project an authentic Afro-Caribbean identity in a globalizing and homogenizing era.

Carole Counihan concludes the book with a tidy summation and a few careful suggestions for further research in areas that emerge from the themes presented notably the continuous negotiations between the “modern” and the “traditional” in the world’s kitchens. Cooking Technology: Transformations in Culinary Practice in Mexico and Latin America, is a wonderful trans-anthropological peek into the dynamic kitchen and strongly reminds us of the importance of food preparation and material culture in our greater understanding of food and foodways.  With a sample drawn from a generously inclusive region, this book will, in whole or in part, enrich reading lists for courses in the anthropology of food, ethno-archaeology, material culture, and people and cultures of Latin America at the undergraduate levels.  Buen Provecho!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Curry’s Great Transnational Journey from India to Japan and North Korea

Guest contributor: Markus Bell, Australian National University

I hadn’t been in Japan more than a few weeks before I was hooked on Japanese karē raisu (curryrice/カレーライス). It was the rich, unmistakable smell that seeped under doorways and filled the undercover shopping markets of Osaka that first caught my attention.

I followed the scent down an alley and into a tiny eatery not large enough for more than half a dozen customers. Behind the wooden counter perched two large vats – the source of the seductive aromas. In one, the potbellied chef told me, is spicy curry. In the other is sweet curry. Perhaps noticing my indecisiveness he picked up two small, wooden bowls and dished out a ladle of spicy into one bowl and a ladle of sweet into the other. “Try,” he commanded.

Curry in a pot, Kyoto

Curry in a pot, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

Marking the beginnings of a ritual that I would repeat many times over the years, my tastebuds burst into life. Obediently, I took a scoop of the sweet sauce. The velvety texture of the piping hot substance wrapped itself around my tongue and left me wanting more. But I hadn’t finished. Unapologetically licking my spoon clean, I plunged it into the spicy sauce and into my mouth. This time my tongue burnt.

“Is it too much for you?” The smirking chef asked, almost gleefully. “No, no.” I replied, sucking air into my mouth and reaching for a glass of water. “It just took me by surprise.” Without asking, the chef took a larger bowl and filled it with sweet curry, beef, and potatoes. So began my love affair with Japanese karē raisu.

At that time I was carrying out research in Japan on Osaka’s incipient North Korean community. That evening, when I met my North Korean friends for our customary pork barbeque and beer in Korea town, I recounted my midday culinary adventure. “Oh yes,” they agreed. “Japanese curry is good. But until you’ve eaten it on a snowy Pyongyang day, you haven’t lived.”

And there it was. My curiosity was piqued and I had to know: How did curry, ostensibly a product of the Indian Subcontinent, make its way onto tables in the most isolated nation on the planet?

Curryrice with side of miso soup, Kyoto

Curry with a side of miso soup, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

The story of curry is emblematic of the early days of colonialism, and the beginnings of what we now simply refer to as globalization. Academics claim that people may have been eating curries as far back as 2,500BCE, and that it has addictive properties.

The roots of the word “Curry” are undecided, with some arguing that it comes from the Old English word “Cury,” ostensibly first used in an English cookbook published in 1390. Others contending it is a derivative of the Tamil word, ‘Kari’ (கறி), referring to a dish cooked with vegetables, meat and spices.

The “curry-flavoured” powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England. Hannah Glasse published the first curry recipe in English in 1747 in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. Her interpretation was more of a “gentle, aromatic stew” than a fiery vindaloo, but it featured curry powder as a key ingredient. In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened Britain’s first curry house, the “Hindustan Coffee House”: it was a massive failure, but in the years that followed curry as an English dish re-emerged in restaurants across the United Kingdom. Curry gradually became an accepted part of every British pub menu, perhaps offering balance to an otherwise lackluster English diet.

Anglicized interpretations of Indian cuisines were subsequently taken to Imperial Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire. They were among the first British subjects the Japanese came into contact with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his “Black Ships” at Kurihama in 1853. By the late 19th century, the Japanese navy had adapted the British version of curry, just as the English had earlier Anglicized Indian curry.

In 1872, the first karē raisu recipe was published in a Japanese cookbook, and in 1877 a Tokyo restaurant first offered karē raisu on the menu. Just as it had done in England, curry rapidly became a staple of the Japanese diet. Today, Friday nights on-board the vessels of the Japanese navy are still curry nights. A website of the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s “Family Page” lists its most popular curry dishes with recipes for the public to try. These mouth-watering recipes come with step-by-step cooking instructions and pictures of over fifty different curries popular on Japanese military bases.

In 1968, inspired by the Swedish army’s “pouched sausages,” Otsuka Foods Co. launched vacuum-sealed boil-in-a-bag curry. The convenience of these ready-to-eat treats appealed to thrifty students and overworked salarymen. Within a few years Otsuka Foods’ annual sales topped 100 million packets.

In the 1960s, when the Japanese government pressured Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese – former subjects of the Japanese Empire to self-deport, curry also followed tens of thousands of repatriating Koreans to North Korea. Family who stayed behind in Japan sent tightly packed parcels crammed full of ready-made karē raisu to loved ones in North Korea.

The North Korean government prohibited repatriates from ever returning to Japan. Immigrants from Japan struggled to survive the often-harsh conditions of North Korea. Access to imported karē raisu and other imported food products became a matter of life and death. They used karē raisu as a currency, trading it for local products – kimchee, rice, and meat – and strategically gifting it to cadre of the Korean Workers’ Party. The more industrious, daring individuals opened black market curry and noodle stalls operating out of their apartments.

Over dinner, my friend Hye-rim Ko, recently escaped from North Korea, explained that during this time, “We native North Koreans tried to mimic immigrants from Japan. We wanted to dress like them and eat the food they had. We were curious. What they ate was better than our food.” “Native” North Koreans, like Hye-rim, had to rely on immigrants from Japan for a regular fix of curry.

In between mouthfuls of fried pork wrapped in perilla leaves, another friend, Sazuka Tanaka, who migrated to North Korea in 1960 told me, “I managed a small restaurant in a northern city of North Korea. We served karē raisu and other dishes from Japan. It was a hugely popular place to eat for North Koreans and I became quite famous for my curry.”

The tastes and smells of curry reminded immigrants from Japan of the home they’d left behind. More importantly, such dishes were a lifeline during the famine that gripped North Korea in the 1990s.

In 2002 Kim Jong-Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens. The Japanese government reacted by imposing trade sanctions on the DPRK. These sanctions choked off the supply of curry to North Korea. Consequently, North Koreans living near the Sino-Korean border were forced to import a Chinese version of karē raisu. North Korean defectors I worked with assured me that “fake” karē raisu wasn’t a patch on the real thing. They claimed that it “lacked flavor” and was “made with inferior ingredients.”

Curry is a chameleon of a dish and a well traveled one at that. From India to Pyongyang, to Tokyo, and the NASA space program; in each place it’s traveled to people have adapted and blended it to local tastes, making it one of the world’s most loved cuisines. Perhaps this is why many of my friends and I feel such affection for it: curry, like us, shifts and evolves through its travels, the cultures it passes through, and the people who love and adopt it.

Markus Bell is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University’s anthropology department, researching on North Korean society and North Korean migration. From September 2016 he will take up a lectureship in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell 

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Book Review: Cooking for Crowds

cooking for crowds cover 2

White, Merry. 2013. Cooking for Crowds: 40th Anniversary Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Merry (Corky) White has produced a 40th anniversary edition of Cooking for Crowds, which she produced in 1974 for Basic Books, a volume re-issued by Princeton University Press. The backstory: the Basic Books editor discovered her recipes as a guest of Harvard’s Center for West European Studies (this was the Cold War era, distinguishing East and West). Corky, earning money for graduate studies, had decided to try catering, in lieu of office work, on a dare, and was wildly successful. Her international menus, based on family recipes she gathered from colleagues and friends, proved a big hit at the Center, where she catered weekly lunches for fifty and occasional dinners for twenty. They were colorful, not “white,” a language that contrasts both the hue and total sensory experience of what she despised as flavorless New England beige dinners: unseasoned white-meat chicken, white starchy vegetable (potatoes or rice), and cauliflower. This was the era immediately following the publication of FML’s Diet for a Small Planet and the kind of international cuisine and still unusual grains and vegetables that she offered were not yet expected or standard restaurant offerings. She figured that she couldn’t compete or measure up on cuisine that her distinguished guests knew well, such as French, but she could entertain their palates with relatively exotic fare from Ukraine (cabbage and pork stew) or Scandinavia (almond cake), and she always left a pile of recipes for those who might want to try cooking these dishes at home. The Basic Books editor, without consulting her, grabbed the packet of recipes, returned to NYC, and there engaged his close friend, New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, to draw captivating cartoons, which included identifiable and anthropomorphized vegetables having friendly chats, and disgruntled looking miniature chefs pushing enormous rolling pins, or toting enormous oversized tubers or peppers. The drawings capture the essential ideas of fun, spices, and colors, which the recipes exemplify. Almost all contain bright capsicum other peppers, flavorful greens as basic ingredients or herbs, fragrant olive oil, and a host of other spices that color and complexify the results. She points out that the recipes are relatively simple, although one might imagine that in 1974 , many ingredients would have required a specialty food shop, in her case, Savenor’s, which was conveniently located down the street. For Asian ingredients, such as sesame oil, she directs readers to Chinese and Japanese markets. Many of the recipes are derived from her own post-college travel and eating experiences on a tight budget. Especially the Asian recipes appear to be diaries from her own travels, with additional consultations with local ethnic-American sources. Where she garnered the recipe from a friend or colleague, as in the case of “Dirty rice” which was a Louisiana creole specialty, she tells the story.

What may have added to the allure for the editor’s acquisition are Corky’s querky and delectable culinary images, for example, “sweet meatballs for couscous” contain prunes, which “add a mysterious sweetness” (p.63) Or, “Pumpernickel is a bread with a secret” that some say are prunes but in her recipe is chocolate (p.20). A third example concerns “Cocido Valenciana: “This is a Spanish version of a boiled dinner, superior, in my view, to the New England variety. … The bright yellow coloring and rough chunks of vegetables and meats inspire a hearty appetite.” (p.112) Her cuisine also cuts right across class lines, as in “an elegant yet hearty” artichoke and chickpea salad, which will go equally well with an elegant pate-stuffed squab — or charcoal-broiled hamburger! (p.125). In the course of cooking completely new recipe ideas from scratch, plus consulting with grandma’s-recipes experts, she also discovers certain flavor secrets, such as sugar binds and improves tomato-based spaghetti sauce, and kitchen utensil improvisations: “Couscous is traditionally made in a two-part steamer called a couscousiere, which is available but not necessary, as you can improvise a steamer by lining a colander with cheesecloth, fitting it over a kettle, and covering it with a tight-fitting lid.” (p.60).

Whether buyers purchased the volume for the relatively exotic food, the delightful cartoonish illustrations, or the revolutionary cooking ideas for the busy working person (“one of the best places to work is the floor: if it is clean … it (is) much more convenient than juggling pots and pans and mounds of vegetables on small counter spaces” (xxviii) is unknown: whatever the motivation, the book was a hit. It helped also that the text included friendly references to Julia Child, who was a rising culinary star, and conveniently Corky’s neighbor, who occasionally salvaged her cooking disasters. One noteworthy incident involved a burnt cabbage stew, which Julia directed Corky to repot, calm the acrid with sour cream — which coats the tongue to keep nasty sensations out, flavor-modify with extra lemon — which then minimizes the charred flavor, and beautify with lots of green parsley on top. The clever integrating concept, which made the remaining off flavors a virtue, was a name change: to Ukrainian smoked cabbage stew! The heavy cream and substantial butter base also are redolent of Julia, ingredients that enriched otherwise simpler vegetable or low-meat soups into filling and satisfying meals.

The reasons to re-issue the book are tied not only to burgeoning popularity of thematic cook books and culinary memoirs, but also the current healthy eating and nutritional guidelines, which favor hearty vegetables and whole grains (although not butterfat), included in these soups, stews, and salads. Each recipe is a satisfying construction on its own, with suggestions for variations or substitutions in ingredients; with a brief account of its role(s) in a fully satisfying meal; e.g., leguminous soups and stews, especially if complemented with a little wurst, require only bread, salad, and dessert to form a rich and filling lunch or supper. Such appetizers can be easily stretched into main courses, e.g., “Garlic soup can be a light first course or a thick main dish” (p.31), with the resulting soup, bread, salad, dessert theme again suggesting how she concocted so many of her luncheons. Each recipe gives directions for adjusting ingredients to scale, to feed 6, 12, 20 and 50, and suggests how best to preserve, prepare, and serve leftovers.

This book might well serve as supplementary reading for food anthropology courses.

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